Public can give suggestions on translations of Singapore government materials via online dialogues

SG Translate is a local translation engine powered by AI designed to improve translations of Singapore's four official languages. ST PHOTO: JASON QUAH

SINGAPORE - Those who wish to give suggestions on how government materials can be better translated can now sign up for virtual dialogue sessions that will kick off next week.

Those who wish to lend their expertise in translating local terms accurately in government communications materials can also sign up to be citizen translators at these sessions.

Since a pilot initiative to recruit these translators started last July, a total of 88 such citizen translators have signed up, Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information Sim Ann told reporters on Friday (Jan 15).

This comprises 53 translators for the Chinese language, 22 for Malay and 13 for Tamil.

"We have been working together with them and tapping on their knowledge and experience, for instance, to help spot potential errors in our translation, and we're now ready to open the invitation to more people... I welcome everyone who has been tracking translation-related issues to join us for these engagement sessions," she said.

There will be two such dialogue sessions that will be held - one for the Chinese-speaking community that will be chaired by Ms Sim, and another one for the Malay- and Tamil-speaking communities, which Ms Sim will co-chair with Parliamentary Secretary for Health Rahayu Mahzam and MP Vikram Nair. More can be organised on a regular basis if there is strong interest, said Ms Sim.

Going forward, these citizen translators can also help with SG Translate, a local translation engine powered by artificial intelligence (AI) developed by the authorities to improve translations of Singapore's four official languages. While such translation work will be done on a voluntary basis, the Government can introduce them to translation companies if they wish to do so professionally, or engage them for work if they are suitable, said Ms Sim.

The engine, which is trained with data taken from local government communications materials, is able to translate specific local terms, such as MediSave and Pioneer Generation. It can also translate terms like "Asean" - which have different Chinese translations in China and Taiwan - accurately.

AI, which is the technology of using machines to simulate human intelligence, works best when its models are trained with large amounts of high-quality data.

SG Translate, which was was rolled out to government agencies in 2019, was developed jointly by the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI) with the Agency for Science, Technology and Research's Institute for Infocomm Research. On Friday, Ms Sim said that it will be made available for use by professional translators and members of the media by the end of this year, which will also allow them to help to train the AI model and improve the engine's accuracy.

Ms Lee Siew Li, director of the translation department at MCI's public communications division, said citizen translators will also be able to choose the tasks that they would like to be involved in, such as vetting and proofreading material, or editing translated text that has been generated by SG Translate.

Over the years, the volume of translated materials that the Government handles has increased considerably, Ms Sim said, and the ongoing coronavirus crisis has also increased demand for speedy and accurate translated material.

On a monthly basis, about 550 translation assignments are outsourced, amounting to a total word count of 312,000. "That's a few full-length novels there... under this circumstance, the question is how can we make sure that we are always able to get it right," she said.

MCI has been stepping up efforts to ensure that officers in different government agencies who put out communications materials understand what is at stake when it comes to ensuring accurate translations, and what are some of the common pitfalls to avoid, Ms Sim said.

It has also been enhancing awareness on basic translation knowledge among officers, such as how using incompatible software can result in text that resembles Tamil but really is not Tamil at all. "People need to know about this, because then they will know what to look out for when they work together with external contractors," she added.

In 2017, the organisers of the National Day Parade apologised for Tamil language errors printed in publicity brochures that were distributed to Primary 5 students.

The Tamil phrase that was supposed to read "let's come together as one nation" ended up being gibberish when the letters were jumbled. In a written reply, Defence Minister Ng Eng Hen told Parliament that the original Tamil translation submitted was correct but errors were made by the printers.

Upcoming virtual dialogues on translation-related issues

Engagement session with the Chinese-speaking community on Zoom

Date: Jan 22

Time: 7.30pm to 9pm Languages used: English and Mandarin

Chaired by: Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information Sim Ann

Engagement session with the Malay and Tamil-speaking communities on Zoom

Date: Jan 26

Time: 7pm to 8.30pm

Languages used: English, Malay and Tamil

Chaired by: Senior Minister of State for Communications and Information Sim Ann, Parliamentary Secretary for Health Rahayu Mahzam, MP Vikram Nair

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